Friday, 2 December 2016

Tazio Nuvolari: The son of the devil

I thought I would share with you a wonderful obituary to the great man that was originally printed in La Domenica del Corriere, Milan on the 23rd August 1953.

il figlio del diavolo

It is 1930: A red car is travelling at high speed along the Emilia and Veneto roads towards Brescia, it is getting dark but it does not slow down. At the wheel is Achille Varzi, one of the greatest aces of all time and the steady roar of his engine seems to him a song of victory, for only a few miles separate him from the finishing line of the 4th “Mille Miglia”. In those days the race always finished at night and the last battle was fought on the roads of Veneto and Lombardy with headlights on. Varzi switched on his lights as he descended to flat country towards Peschiera. By this time the young champion had fought of all competitors after a gruelling race, even though they included such names as Campari, Caracciola, Arcangeli, Ghersi etc. Only one man remained to be disposed of:Tazio Nuvolari. Varzi had managed to throw him off at Perugia and as Nuvolari’s car was exactly the same as his own, he had nothing to fear as regards engine power.

Only by some crazy stunt could Nuvolari pull it off; from Perugia to Bologna he gradually gained on Varzi and glimpsed in the uncertain light, the shadowy form of his car in front. At this juncture all Nuvolari’s fearless but calculated daring would be revealed in full. He knew that once Varzi was aware of his closeness there would be no catching him and so daredevil tactics were the only possible solution. But neither Varzi nor his mechanic, both intent on negotiating the winding dark roads, were aware of the slinky shadow tailing them only a few hundred yards behind; the crackling exhaust note and wind noise dampening all other sound. By now the two cars were tearing along the flat roads, their speedometers soaring rapidly from 60mph to 100mph and at times reaching 120mph. Varzi still ahead with headlights on, Nuvolari five hundred yards behind in the darkness, his only guide being the light from Varzi’s car. Death stalked the fearless Tazio at every bend, bridge and cross-roads: his mechanic Guidotti crouched fearful but fascinated by this extraordinary man, who seemed to possess the eyes of a lynx and the audacity of a thwarted tigress. Nuvolari sneaked ever closer to Varzi, who still oblivious of the threat from the rear and feeling more than ever that victory was within his grasp, slowed down somewhat. Then it happened. Nuvolari jabbed the accelerator flat to the boards, rapidly closing the gap separating the two cars. Varzi, a moment before lulled in a sense of secure victory, was rudely jolted into action as Nuvolari suddenly switched on his headlights and drew level; he stamped on his accelerator pedal in a desperate attempt to throw off the attack, but it was in vain: Nuvolari tore past at a terrific clip. The finishing line was only a few kilometres away and Varzi gave up all hope of victory. Thus Nuvolari won the Mille Miglia. More than beating his rivals, he beat death itself; for him this continual gamble with death was the rule of his sporting life. But this was no foolhardy recklessness, but a cool and calculated audacity born of an invincible passion for every activity which carried the elements of danger.

1930 Mille Miglia winners Nuvolari & Guidotti

In 1912 when he was twenty (born November 16th 1892 at Casteldario, near Mantova) he saw a dismantled Bleriot aeroplane in a big factory in Milan. He promptly bought it for 2000 liras (about £20 in those days) and had it shipped to Casteldario. Nobody was surprised when it arrived in the village; they all knew the offspring of Nuvolari pere as “the son of the devil” (il figlio del diavolo) on account of the many and dangerous exploits he indulged in with bicycles, horses, motor-cycles and finally cars. They were not surprised at all when they saw him assembling the old aeroplane. With the help of a friend it did not take the tireless Tazio long to complete the work, but when it came to flying it, the thing would just not leave the ground. Nothing daunted, Tazio rigged up a hoist and up went the plane on to the roof of his house. After fixing it with a rope he started the engine and when he thought the necessary number of revs had been reached, signalled his friend to cut the moorings. Father Nuvolari, used to his son’s crazy exploits calmly watched the proceedings, cigar in mouth and muttered: “I just wanted to see if he makes it”
Did Tazio take off? No, the engine coughed a few times as the Bleriot slipped off the roof and fell smack onto a haystack down below. The petrol caught fire and the haystack became a raging inferno. The watching crowd surged forward, Nuvolari pere did not move but continued to puff on his cigar. Presently out came Tazio unhurt and unconcerned. “It was my father who taught me never to be afraid” said Nuvolari later to his biographers.

In 1925 during the Grand Prix of Monza, he went off the track with the famous P-2 Alfa and was badly smashed up. Diagnosis ordered a month’s detention in hospital. Earlier in the year he had signed exclusively with Bianchi to race their motorcycles and took great efforts to allow him to compete at Monza. Not wishing to disappoint the Bianchi people, he left his bed on the fourth day, to the consternation of his nurse and indignation of his doctor. Trussed up as he was with bandages he could not move a step, let alone bend down. He certainly could not mount a motor-cycle in that straight-jacket condition, but as ever Tazio was full of resource. He called the head doctor of the hospital and after many and varied explanations accompanied by a few deft sketches, explained the exact position his body must take on a racing motor-cycle. “Now please do me the favour of undoing all these bandages and then do them up again so that I am curved in this position”. After being trussed up like a mummy he was loaded into a car and conveyed to Monza track on the day of the race, where he was bodily lifted onto his Bianchi racing motor-cycle. After a few friendly cracks about it being “a mummy’s race”  he was off with a smile on his face and went on to win the gruelling 200 mile race at an average speed of over 80mph. In 1927 he again crashed in a motor-cycle race at Stuttgart; knocked unconscious the world press announced the loss of a great champion. But he was not dead, just a few fractures and concussion. Diagnosis again ordered a month in hospital, but 72 hours later this “son of the devil” was on his way back to Italy by train. The same year he crashed again whilst practicing on the Verona circuit and believe it or not, was trussed up in bandages once more. The indomitable “mummy” won the race.

350cc Bianchi

Unbeatable on a motor-cycle Tazio now turned his attention exclusively to racing cars. He was equally unbeatable in this field. At Pau in the Grand Prix de France his petrol tank caught fire; located as it was at the back of his machine, he was blissfully unaware of the flames fanned by the 100mph clip. Lap after lap this went on, until he finally grasped the frantic signals from the pits and groundsmen. This called for a quick decision: to stop meant envelopment in flames, to continue might endanger other competitors. This time it really seemed that Death had caught up with him. Once again he gambled. Driving his car towards a grassy patch on the course, he jumped out at 100mph. The car wrapped itself around a tree and “the devil’s son” was picked up with some broken bones and the usual concussion (the 5th of his career!). After twenty days he was up again and racing. “The valiant never taste of death but once” wrote Shakespeare.  Nuvolari proved the truth of this.

Vanderbilt Cup winner 1936

The name of Nuvolari was on the lips of the motoring world. The Americans went mad about him when he won the Vanderbilt Cup in 1936 – a cup almost as big as himself, for he was only 5ft 6in tall and weighed about 8 stone, plus the 32,000 dollar prize. The Germans wanted him for the Auto-Union cars that had recently appeared with rear engines. The designer Porsche and Nuvolari got together and after trying out the car, he suggested certain modifications. At the end of a banquet at which the German aces Caracciola, Lang, Von Brauchitsch, Rosemeyer and other were present, Porsche defined Nuvolari as “the greatest champion of the past, present and future”.

International Grand Prix Donington winner 1938

Victory after victory was his up to the outbreak of war, with death always at his heels. In 1937 he lost a 19year old son and another in 1943 at the age of 18years. He then fell ill himself; exhaust fumes absorbed over a long period had poisoned his whole system. He was warned to stop racing and laid off for a time, but in 1946 was back again to win the Albi Grand Prix in a Maserati. This was to be his last great victory. In 1947 he raced again, successfully over the Forli and Parma circuits, but it was no longer the maestro of yore. The indomitable courage was still there, but his physical strength was undermined by now. Finally in that same year, he was on the point of winning his third Mille Miglia when a terrific storm literally swamped his engine and bought him to a standstill at the doors of Brescia. He came in second, got out the car and collapsed. In a come-back in 1948 he tried again and was well ahead of all competitors when he just had to stop, physically exhausted. He could not keep going. Did he give up? No he scored a last success at the Monte Pelligrino-Palermo circuit.

Nuvolari Monte Pelligrino - Palermo

And now Death has won the last round; it took him unawares and this time he simply could not fight back. On the border of the Great Road of Life the glorious machine has stopped forever: the engine died on him and all around is silence.

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